Thursday Night, Central Illinois
“Grandpa, tell me ‘bout the good old days…when people really fell in love to stay…”
Jake reached over and shut off the radio. What did the Judds know about love anyway? He could tell them a thing or two. “Good old days?” Those were the days when he had lost his upbeat approach to life, when he’d run smack-dab into the yellowed teeth of betrayal. Recalling the good old days for him meant remembering he’d lost the two people he cared about most—Annie and Joey.
A few days after her seventh birthday Annie had asked him, “Daddy, can somebody really break your heart?” He told her that her heart was just one of the organs of her body like her liver or her spleen, and couldn’t actually hurt from sadness. He knew better now. She and Joey had been ripped away from him and all he had left was a cold, lead-weight pain deep in the core of his being, never ending, never letting him forget there was no way he could ever turn things around.
In a fleeting ghost of memory, Jake could hear his mother singing, “Count your many blessings…” and he smiled sadly in the dark. Sure, he owned this shiny new tractor-trailer rig, free and clear, and he enjoyed his work—he could stay on the go, always on the move, and that suited him fine, but he didn’t feel blessed, not by a long shot.
He would never forget the day he decided to buy a truck and take to the road. He’d been riding fences on his roan quarter horse when he mentioned to his ranch manager, Tom Andrews, that he’d been thinking of buying a team of giant horses—Percherons. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
He could still hear Tom yelling at him. “Are you nuts? Percherons? On this spread? If you want horsepower, get yourself a truck.” So, he bought his first tractor-trailer rig and found out Tom had been right: Jake loved the hum of the high performance engine, the constantly changing scenery as he drove all over the country, and most of all, the energy—the absolute blast—of a huge turbo-charged diesel, 500 horses under his command.
A couple of hours ahead of him lay one of his favorite stretches. Rolling hills and wild curves between St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri, challenged his skill, ensuring an adrenaline rush. Probably fairly quiet tonight. Now take that stretch on a hot summer afternoon—tourists mixing it up with loaded trucks—that could get a little dicey, but for a guy like Jake, who knew his stuff, it kicked like a giant video game at 75 miles an hour.
Jerking his thoughts back to the present, he slowed, eased down the off-ramp, and pulled into Traveler’s Haven, east of Bloomington, Illinois. He slotted his truck between a Peterbilt and a Kenworth at the diesel pumps. Sitting down and eating a full meal might make it harder to stay awake all night, and, besides, he didn’t think he could sit still that long. No, he decided he’d be better off just cleaning up, picking up some snacks, and getting set for the long haul ahead of him.
When he’d filled the tank, he moved his rig away from the pumps and the rest of the trucks and parked on the edge of the pavement near the area where passenger cars gassed up. He grabbed his shaving kit and a change of clothes before going inside.
A couple of truckers he had never seen before made back-handed compliments on his new truck while he browsed through the audio books for rent. He kept his eyes focused on the blurred words on the book boxes, avoiding eye contact with them. He knew most of the other truckers, if only by their rigs and CB handles. They considered him a loner, he guessed. He supposed they were right.
On his way to the pay station, he excused himself past a ditzy-looking blonde turning over made-in-Taiwan Elvis junk, evidently looking for the price.
Marge, in a voice big enough to warn ships at sea, kept up a steady banter with the men hanging around her register. She rang up his fuel and “misc.,” took his T-check, and bellowed, “Hey, Jake! That your new condo cab out there?” Without looking at him or missing a beat, she immediately turned her attention to the driver behind him.
Later nobody remembered seeing him leave.
How long can it take to go to the bathroom and pick up a Coke, David wondered. Here he sat, sick of waiting, the van engine running and using gas enough to have taken them fifty miles down the road, while Laura, who hadn’t even driven her fair share, trolled the aisles of a truck stop, looking for gifts. He scowled at the dashboard clock. Eleven o’clock at night and she’s shopping!
David planned his family’s vacations down to the last gallon of gas and McDonald’s meal. A computer engineer with Lowell Paper Company in Green Bay, he knew they called him a geek, but as long as they paid him well, he could live with the nickname.
What he found harder to get used to was that his wife shared none of his precision-loving qualities. The way her mind worked, she figured if she still had checks in the checkbook, they still had money in the bank. If some event started at 8:00 p.m., that’s when she would start getting ready. David liked to arrive early so he could size up the room.
He lost his train of thought as a big shiny semi rumbled to the edge of the pavement and stopped. Funny place to park, he thought. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, Laura and her sense of time.
She said he drove her crazy and she accused him of being a control freak. He called her a blonde flake and told her she drove him nuts.
He really hadn’t been prepared for the complications of marriage to Laura. He expected that she would bear their children and civilize them, manage the household, and generally take care of their little kingdom until he came home from work. He didn’t think it was too much to hope she would greet him looking like the cute little cheerleader he had married. A real home-cooked meal served at a neatly set table should be part of the whole picture, too.
He could count on the fingers of one hand how often his ideal scenario appeared when he opened the door. Instead, he usually found Laura in sweat pants and a ratty T-shirt, and the kids jumping up and down begging to go to McDonald’s. Not his idea of a “happy meal.”
This could be a long night. He sighed and rested his head back on the high seat back. If he’d known she needed this much time he could have power-napped ten minutes and awakened refreshed—the way he sometimes did after the pastor dismissed the kids for children’s church.
David and Laura did attend church services occasionally, but three little children made it almost impossible. Laura never could seem to have herself and the kids ready on time. Not that he minded missing the opening exercises—all the standing and singing in the beginning—but it embarrassed him to drag in late.
Talk about late, what time was it now? 11:20! That’s it! He decided he’d go in and get her even if he had to drag her out by her hair. He glanced in the back at the kids, unmoving, limbs spread every which way, like alligators on a Florida canal bank. He slipped out of the van, careful not to slam the door. This wouldn’t take long.
Austin had only been pretending to sleep. He was a biotechnicoid boy, he always told everybody. He ran on plutonium batteries and didn’t need sleep. He waited, counting, one, two, three, four…and sat up. No sign of Daddy.
Hey! This must be the biggest truck stop in the whole world! At least a zillion trucks. And lights! He bet they didn’t need this many lights even when they made movies and had to clap a blackboard thing and say “Action!” He grabbed his sunglasses. He might need them for a disguise.
Austin, moving his stealthiest—faster than Spiderman—slipped out from under the quilt without waking his little sisters. Soft regular purring assured him of Allison’s undisturbed sleep. Ariel nickered a little, the way she did when she had been crying hard. Austin found her pacifier and stuck it in her mouth, wiping his hand on his pants to get rid of her drool. “Yuck! Slimy baby drool,” he started to say aloud, but checked himself. Allison didn’t stir. Ariel sucked lazily on her pacifier and sighed back to sleep, saliva dribbling into the folds under her tiny chin.
He couldn’t believe his good luck! Daddy never ever before walked away from the van until Mama got back in.
When Austin stayed with his Grandma and Grandpa Page out on the farm, Grandpa sometimes went to the bathroom out in the field and told Austin it was all right for men to do that. Mama said it was gross, but he had to do it right now. Over there on that grassy place would be good.
No time for shoes. He could move faster in bare feet anyway. Quick as a cat, whisper quiet. Diving into deep shadows behind a truck, he couldn’t suppress a giggle.
As he stood there shivering, preparing to relieve himself on a flattened cigarette wrapper, he knew this would be the best joke ever! He could imagine Mama and Daddy coming back to the van and finding him gone. Mama would get all excited and cry and Daddy would act mad while really thinking his boy was the coolest.
Austin stopped stock-still and dropped his jaw in wonderment at the giant truck he had run behind.
All the way from Green Bay he had gawked at the great trucks as they rolled along the highways, passing the trucks when Mama drove, being passed when Daddy was at the wheel.
He learned their names: Kenworth, Peterbilt, International, Volvo, Mack. Drivers almost always returned his happy waves. Sometimes, when a truck came really close to the back of their car, Austin made an up and down sign with his fists, kinda like milking a cow, and the driver would blow his big air horn. Daddy used his biggest and best swears then, and Mama always said, “Little pitchers have big ears, David.”
A shiny new Freightliner Cascadia!
Satisfied with the smooth rumble of the idling 18-wheeler, Jake jumped down for one last walk-around before pulling out for a long night run. For only two minutes, maybe three at the most, while he tapped the tires with his hammer, the open driver’s side door was out of his line of vision.
Heart hammering in his chest, imagining himself moving with supernatural speed, like Superman, Austin Page, fearless six-year-old, crawled up into the cab through the driver’s door, and hid himself in a far back corner of the sleeper bed, pulling a plaid wool blanket over his head. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
Austin closed his eyes, pretending this was his daddy’s truck as his nose picked up familiar scents of the after shave Daddy used, coffee, and maybe chocolate. Hugging himself with delight, he felt happy and safe, glorying in the wondrous smell of new truck. Not quite seven years old, he couldn’t think past the moment, and for this moment, he thought he’d reached heaven.
By pestering his little sisters, asking questions he knew the answers to, insisting Daddy read all the truck names to him, he had managed to stay awake until now, but in the warm darkness, the gentle vibration of the great truck did him in. For a fleeting second he wondered if he might be dreaming, and then, before he could plot his next move, he was.
Jake rounded the trailer and as he moved to step back up into the cab, he pulled out his handkerchief to rub out little smudges he hadn’t noticed before. When he stood back to admire the perfect shine he’d accomplished, he noted that it reflected the distorted images of an obviously frustrated man and a woman arguing while getting into their van and driving away.
“It’s about time. Get in the car. Now!” David exploded as Laura emerged from the gift shop. “What took so long?”
“Excuse me? Don’t you dare use that tone of voice with me,” Laura demanded, her blue eyes spitting angry sparks. “I’ll have you know I found exactly the right thing for your mom’s birthday. You know how she loves Elvis stuff…”
“At a truck stop at midnight? We’re headed for Dallas and you had to shop in the middle of Illinois? And where is this perfect gift? Did you go and walk off without the package after all that time?”
“I had it shipped back to Green Bay. It’s fragile and I didn’t want to have it in the car with us the whole time we’re in Dallas.”
Without another word Laura got in the van, laid the seat back and closed her eyes.
Back on the highway, David set the cruise control and resumed seething while Laura slept or, David suspected, faked deep slumber, which made him so mad he felt as if he had a caffeine buzz.
He hated that his vacations had to revolve around her parents. Just once he wished they could do something normal, like camping at Yellowstone, or even spending a week at a lake cottage.
He liked Will and Gloria well enough, (Will, anyway), and they had a spacious house, so staying with them wasn’t the hassle it might have been, but driving to Dallas chewed up two days each way. His company only gave him three weeks of paid vacation a year. This time they had planned to take turns at the wheel and drive straight through rather than stopping at a motel.
His in-laws were an odd pair, he thought. Will was a laid-back kind of guy even before he retired from Texas Mutual and Fidelity where he had headed up the Information Technology division. We computer geeks are mellow, David thought, grinning to himself. Laura said her dad had always been ‘the stabilizing force’ for the whole family.
Gloria, now, was not mellow. Opinionated and not a bit shy about sharing her opinions, like when she told the preacher he needed a haircut before performing David and Laura’s wedding ceremony. A “formidable woman,” his dad had observed when he first met her.
Laura let the kids run wild—no discipline at all—and David didn’t know whether she loved them too much to get after them when they needed it, or if it was because she leaned a bit toward the lazy side. His mother once said Laura seemed to have an unnatural fear of getting tired.
There had been an uneasy moment or two during their last visit when Will said David ought to be more involved in the care of the children. Will even said he thought Austin acted like a brat, and that set Laura to crying and David to defending her, though he couldn’t deny it. Everybody was mad at everybody else for a while there, but Gloria stepped in and sent them all—even him and Will—to their rooms to pray, and 30 minutes later no one wanted to talk about it anymore.
He glanced over at his sleeping wife, beautiful as always, but quiet for a nice change. Enjoy the moment, he told himself, picturing her twenty years in the future, as bossy as her mother. He’d better pay attention to his driving, too. His whole world—Laura, his wife with whom he was still totally smitten, bossy or otherwise, the three kids sleeping in back—depended on him to take them safely through this dark night.
Tires all okay. Indicators competent and ready. Jake ran a hand through his short brown hair, still damp from a shower—free with a full tank of diesel—before jamming on his cap. He slid his Ropers onto the pedals and pulled the door closed. Buckling his seat belt, he checked the time. 11:30.
He had hoped to load and leave Chicago earlier, but this next stretch promised to be a steady 65-70 miles per hour. Word was, the weigh stations would stay closed and he wouldn’t be delayed there. Barring a big construction slow-down or a breakdown—the latter unlikely with a new truck—he should still be able to get all the way to Tulsa before pulling it off for a mandatory eight hours down.
Too much driving all in one stretch, but it couldn’t be helped. He took a couple of deep breaths.
Strong black coffee in the thermos—check. Tom Clancy technothriller on audiotape—check. Pound of Peanut M&Ms—check. CB tuned to channel 19—check. Lonedaddy is ready to roll.
Jake skillfully piloted the big rig and folded it smoothly into the night traffic on Interstate 55, southwest toward St. Louis. He inserted the first Clancy tape, sipped his first cup of coffee, and passed his first minivan on this leg of the trip: a 2005 model white Honda Odyssey with Wisconsin tags.